As students left our boarding school in Shenzhen on January 17 for the long-awaited Chinese New Year vacation, none of them expected that an epidemic brewing in Wuhan would spread rapidly across the nation, preventing them from seeing their teachers and friends at school for the foreseeable future.
Some students didn’t even take their books home.
Now, 415 students and scores of teachers are in self-quarantine and haven’t seen each other face-to-face in over 60 days—but, gratefully, they are still interacting and school is progressing.
How did this happen? Simply put, the new coronavirus outbreak caught us unaware.
In fact, approximately 180 million Chinese students are currently engaged in distance education. With varying success, Chinese educators are continuing their teaching through distance education methods and tools.
As the principal of a Chinese secondary school that successfully transitioned to distance education in early February 2020, I have been encouraged to share tips for educators and parents for when a school closure affects you:
1. Be optimistic. Smiles are infectious. During stressful periods when there are more questions than answers, having a positive mental attitude can serve as a “breath of fresh air.” Optimism and cheerful spirits can create an environment where learning can take place in particular—and it is also good for mental and physical well-being generally.
2. Keep routines. Ask teachers and students to continue school routines at home (or their current location) according to your school’s regular timetable. Your routines and schedules will provide structure (and the comfort that is derived from structure) to the school community as you carry on class meetings, discussions, office hours, and messaging.
3. Keep assignments simple. Assignments should be described very clearly so that students can succeed. It can be tempting for teachers to assign lots of independent work. However, teachers should give assignments that are bite-sized and similar to what they would assign on-campus. It is wise to avoid assignments that are complex or require materials or tools that are uncommon in homes.
4. Use video. Students prefer video-based mini-lessons in addition to written instructions. Most students are accustomed to hearing and seeing their teachers’ lessons and demonstrations. Therefore, encourage teachers to create videos using screen capturing software or simple cameras (e.g. mobile phone cameras) to explain and demonstrate lesson content or assignments. Videos by others may also be useful, but never underestimate the value of your own audio and visual messages. Students love to hear their teachers’ voices!
5. Hold virtual class meetings, but make them optional. Virtual meetings 1 or 2 times per week can help students feel connected to their teachers and classmates, but it is helpful to make them optional, due to potential time differences or internet accessibility issues. Also, it is helpful to record meetings and post them for those who could not attend.
6. Carefully choose digital curriculum … When students do not have printed textbooks at home, digital curriculum can fill the gap. Some digital resources are “open” with few or no restrictions. Others require licenses. Be sure to follow licensing laws and agreements.
Algebra 2 student Lisa Li Xiangning uses Desmos and video recording software to demonstrate a mathematical function to her classmates. (Photo credit: Leland Anderson)
7. … but limit screen time. Excessive screen time can have negative side effects. Although there are many wonderful online tools and e-curriculum resources, teachers can reduce screen time by assigning book reading, handwritten work, or hands-on physical activities. When appropriate, handwritten assignments and hands-on projects can be photographed and submitted in place of typewritten work.
8. Focus on healthy living. Especially during times of quarantine or isolation, educators should give attention to the whole person—body, spirit, mind, and social relationships. Principals should encourage all—students, families, and employees—to practice wellness, self-management, goal-setting, as well as adopt an optimistic sense of perseverance. Regarding social contact, I think we will all discover that one does not need to be physically present in order to be personal; we can create a welcome sense of “contact” through phone and video calls, texting, and emails.
9. Involve parents. Each positive interaction that parents have with their children can be a memorable one. Encourage parents to become involved with their child’s learning at home. On a weekly basis, teachers could (and I would say should) publish a week-long learning plan for the coming week. With a learning plan, parents and students have a sense of course expectations, which will greatly reduce the anxiety of all concerned. It also conveys the professionalism of the teacher and school. Educators should welcome parents’ suggestions and respond to parent input.
10. Consider a learning management system. If your school does not already have a learning management system (LMS), now is a good time to familiarize yourself with some of the options available. You should consider adopting an LMS that allows your teachers to do the following:
- post files, videos, and links;
- accept file submissions;
- provide comments and feedback on submissions;
- administer and score quizzes;
- keep scores in a grade book; and
- share assignments, scores, and comments with students and parents via a mobile app.
Some popular LMSs are shown here. Although I have listed this item last, a well-organized LMS can make a tremendous difference in the success of your school’s online program.
Most important to online and distance education is a culture of kindness, interaction, and responsiveness. Teachers and students thrive in such an environment.
We eagerly await the end of the COVID-19 epidemic and take hope in remembering that storms pass, night turns to day, and winter gives way to spring. Eventually, this epidemic, too, will pass.